It is the individual scheme in which the life is divided into four stages.
The Student stage In this stage, education is the focus. Knowing the importance of both material and spiritual goal.
The Family stage Emphasis is pursuit of Artha and Kāma – material goal oriented.
The Hermit stage Transition stage where I prepare for Spiritual goal and gradually withdraw from material pursuit and prepare for spiritual pursuit
The Sanyāsa Stage When I am dedicated to Spiritual pursuit.
These four stages have to be gone through by everyone, in fact all the spiritual Sādhanāni are only these four stages.
In the last class, we saw about Varna Āshrama Vyavasthā or Varna Āshrama Scheme which is prescribed by our scriptures for the accomplishment of the human goals otherwise called Purushārtha. And we saw that this Varna Āshrama scheme consists of two schemes – one being Varna Vyavasthā or the Varna Scheme and the other being Āshrama Vyavasthā or Āshrama scheme. Of this we dealt with Varna scheme elaborately. Therefore we will see Āshrama Vyavasthā scheme as designed by the Shāstram and more important and relevant than the Varna Vyavasthā.
Āshrama is generally translated as a stage in life and the entire life of a Vaidika is divided into four stages otherwise called four Āshrama - Chatvāraha Āshramāhā. These four stages are
- Brahmachari Āshrama – a stage of a student life
- Grihastha Āshrama – a stage of a housholder’s life
- Vānaprastha Āshrama – a stage of a hermit’s life
- Sanyāsa Āshrama – a stage of a monk’s life of renunciation
The above are the four Āshramas mentioned in our Shāstrams. What is the meaning of the word Āshrama? Derivatively seen, the word Shramaha means effort, a deliberate wilful well directed effort. Here the effort is a spiritual Sādhanā. Therefore Shramaha means spiritual Sādhanā or Sādhanā Anushtāna. And Āshramaha refers to a stage of life in which a person practices spiritual Sādhanāni.
Ā Samantāt Shramaha Ādhyātmika Sādhanā Anushtānanam Yasmin Saha - a state in which a person is committed to spiritual Sādhanā. And since the entire life is divided into four Āshramas, according to our scriptures, the entire life is a spiritual journey. Āshrama is not only in the later part of life, it is not a post retirement exercise, the entire life is a series of spiritual Sādhanāni only. The only difference, in each stage the type of spiritual Sādhanā differs. And that is why according to our scriptures the primary and ultimate goal of a human being is spiritual goal only.
Even though we temporarily accept Dharma Artha and Kāma as human goals, but in the heart of hearts the scriptures do not accept them as real goals. They are apparent goals and appear as goals as long as a person is immature. And accepting the viewpoint of an immature person. The scriptures talk about the other three goals, but really speaking there is only one goal that is spiritual. And therefore the scriptures design an entire lifestyle full of spiritual Sādhanā for the realisation accomplishment of the spiritual goal called Mokha. Until he becomes mature, he will practice spiritual Sādhanā without knowing that it is spiritual Sādhanā. Veda prescribe the Sādhanā which are like sugar coated pills so a child consumes the medicine as though it is a sweet but inside hidden is the medicine. Similarly the scriptures prescribe exercises which are seemingly meant for Dharma-Artha-Kāma but the hidden intent is that they will also unknowingly in a hidden manner. Our scriptures also have a hidden agenda. The superficial agenda is Sādhanā for Dharma-Artha-Kāma but the hidden agenda is Sādhanā for Mokha. Since in all the four stages, exercises are prescribed for spiritual goals, all the four stages are Āshrama only. And the spiritual goal is nothing but a freedom struggle, a struggle for internal freedom. But the life is a freedom struggle meant for spiritual freedom otherwise called Moksha.
These four stages are very interesting, because it is very close to the stages which are undergone by certain insects like butterflies. If you study the life stages of a butterfly talked about by an entomologist, they also go through four stages. First is the egg stage, then from the egg, they come ourt as worms called caterpillar voraciously eating leaves and after a burst of activities again they withdraw into a stage of pupa. Similar to the egg stage, the pupa stage also has no activity and it is withdrawal. And from the pupa stage they come out as a full fledged butterfly free to fly. In the butterfly stage alone it is the most attractive one. Now we will see what are these four Āshrama .
4.1. Brahmachari Āshrama
The first Āshrama is Brahmachari Āshrama or student’s life or the life of education. The question is what is the purpose and content of education ? Nowadays when we talk about education, we only mean learning certain professional skills meant for earning. Learning for earning. Only money or earning or entertainment or Artha-Kāma alone are kept in mind when we talk about education nowadays – which particular profession will give maximum salary and if possible minimum work. This is not the approach of our scriptures. Our scriptures accept that there should be learning of professional skills. It is required because we have to earn our livelihood. I should become either Karma Brāhmanaha or Karma Kshatriyaha or Karma Vaishyaha or Karma Shūdra. For the appropriate profession, I should get the knowledge and skills and this education is understood and scriptures accept this.
But according to our scriptures this is only one aspect of education and in fact it is a secondary aspect only that has unfortunately become primary only now. According to our scriptures the primary purpose of education is refinement of a person, character building of a person, transformation of the person so that he will harmoniously fit into the society contributing to both the social and individual growth. If an unrefined corrupt person, a valueless person enters the society there will be only disharmony and problems in the society. And this refinement alone makes an animalistic man governed by instincts will be converted into a humane man , a Man man who is governed by proper ways of living. Swāmi Chinmayānanda beautifully uses the expression, the animal man should be reborn as Man-man. A wild human being should become a tamed or cultured human being and only then a Man man can be converted into a God man.
You would have heard about metals dug out from the earth and when the crude metals are dug from mines they are in crude ore form. This is a crude form that cannot be used by anyone. No doubt they have been extracted out of the earth, no doubt the metal is born, but the metal is only potentially useful and not yet useful. If the metal has to be made useful, it has to go to factory and undergo a set of processes of refinement and the ore should be converted into a refined metal and that alone can be brought for public use. Similarly when we are born out of our mother, our first birth is unrefined crude only potentially useful form. And we should not enter the society without going through a second process called Gurukulavāsā or education system in which I have to get refined. And that is why we say, we all should have two Janmāhā and we should all become Dvijaha. Prākruta Janāhā to Samkruta Janāhā – crude human being to cultured human being, this conversion is the job of education.
And that is why in many Smrutis, two sets of parents are talked about. The biological parents give birth to the crude human being.
Matur Agre Adhijananam Dvitīyam Mounji Bandhanāt, Tatrāsya Mātā Gāyatri Pitā Tu Āchārya Uchyate.
The first set of parents is the biological parents through whom I am born in an unrefined form. Then I go to my Āchārya or Guru who uses Gāyatri Devi. Gāyatri Devi represents Vidyā or education or Shāstram Jnānam. And this Āchārya is the father and Gāyatri or Sarasvati is the mother. Guru as the father and education as the mother will convert me into a useful refined mature human being.
Therefore education must include scriptural education also according to our scriptures and that is why the very student stage is called Brahmachāri Āshrama. Brahma here means the scriptures or the Vedas. And Chāri is the one who dwells upon. Brahmani Vede Charati. Charati means walks, travels mentally through the Vedic teaching which is nothing but scriptural education. Going through that is Brahmachari Āshrama .
The next question is what type of education should I have for the refinement of the personality. What type of education do the scriptures give to refine me ? Three things are very important.
4.1.1.Understand the Goal
The first thing is I should very clearly know what is the ultimate goal that I am working for. Imagine in a football match, all the eleven people know how to dribble the ball and keep the ball with their team without giving it to the other team. And when they don’t strike any goal, there is no use at all. Remember that I should know, dribbling the ball is not an end in itself, after one and half hours I will be tired but I wont be successful. I should know through the struggles even thought the footballer is handling the ball, he remembers that he has to strike a goal. The whole life is a football match. We are handling so many things like money, family, office etc but the question is what for is all this ? I should be clearly taught and told that the goal is Moksha or I have to convert myself from animal man to Man-man to God Man. This is the purpose and if I don’t accomplish this, I have played football very well, but the result is nothing.
Yaha Ātmānam Aviditvā Asmān Lokāt Prayiti, Saha Kripanaha Yaha Aksharam Viditvā Prayiti, Saha Eva Brāhmanaha.
Therefore the student must know that the spiritual goal is the ultimate goal
4.1.2.Knowledge of Rituals
The second thing that has to be there is the knowledge of some form of religious worship which is generally known as rituals. This also should be known and understood because many people do not understand the role and importance of worship and rituals. Physical-ised worship is being referred to here. Because rituals or worship are one of the best methods to develop discipline. Wherever rituals are there, religious or material rituals, discipline is bound to come. And wherever discipline is involved, rituals will automatically come. E.g. The army is the most disciplined part of the country and they have the maximum rituals. Greeting, walking, functions in their group and even standing is ritualistic. Discipline and rituals always go together and therefore one requires some form of ritual to develop discipline.
The second purpose is developing dynamism in life. Because laziness is the most natural thing to the physical body.
Ālasyam Hi Manushyānām Sharīrastho Mahān Ripuhu.
Laziness is inborn in the body. Unless we have some physical routine in life the laziness will not go away. Tamo Guna Nivruttārtham. One requires rituals or physicalised routines
The third purpose is to develop devotion to Lord. Devotion to Lord can be developed only by physicallised expression. Devotion is an inner mental feeling like any other emotion. Emotion is invisible. Any emotion has to be expressed and this is by verbalisation or physicallisation or both. The body has its own language of communicating with either positive or negative emotions. This expression not only reveals my emotion, this expression will nourish my emotion also. Thus the expression is not only the effect of my emotion, but the expression can nourish the emotion. Therefore every expression is a cause and a consequence of an emotion. Therefore when I do Pūja, I am expressing my devotion and also nourishing my devotion. Therefore our relationship with the Lord is kept alive and is nourished throughout our life. Ultimately the scriptures are going to teach us that the only permanent relation is the relation with God. All the other human relation, however much carefully you nourish will end someday or the other. If at all there is one permanent relation, that is with God. Therefore that relationship of reverence and devotion, must be kept alive and must be nourished and therefore also physicallised (Pūja) and verbalised (Stotram) worship.
4.1.3.Values of Life
So education must teach me what is the goal, importance of worship and the important values of life. Values of life are the eternal constants of creation that can never be changed.
Dharma is unchanging. It is Shāshvatam Dharma or Sanātana Dharma and are eternal values. I should understand them and I should assimilate them. I should know that I cannot compromise them without damaging my physical, emotional and intellectual health. This has to be understood.
Hence in education, I should know the Goals of life, learn the value of physicalised worship and the Values of life. Once I go through these three stages, I am a refined human being and not a threat to the society.
4.2. Grihastha Āshrama
The Second Āshrama is Grihastha Āshrama . The first two are very important. Grihastha Āshrama or Family life is the next Āshrama which is extremely relevant and important and alive even now. According to scriptures, family life is a religious institution sanctified through a religious process or ceremony meant for a religious life primarily. Family life is a religious institution formed by a religious ceremony and meant for religious purpose only.
Materialistic purposes are incidental by-products only. This is our approach to family life. If we think that materialistic goals like security and pleasure or comfort are the primary purposes, then such a family life will become either unstable or it will soon become irrelevant. And that is why the religious emphasis is getting diluted now and the families are becoming unstable. In many other societies, the very relevance of family life as an institution is being questioned. Because when you look at the family from a materialistic angle, you will get a totally different picture. There are these people called Women’s Liberation who say women have been traditionally economically dependant and not empowered to fulfil her aspiration. And they say that women must be economically independent and empowered and now women are also independent. Then comes the question as to why they need to live together : this is because nobody is dependant on anybody else, no body needs the other one and therefore the very purpose of living together is questioned. Even if we say we stay together because we like each other, unfortunately human likes and dislikes constantly change. And especially in a consumerist society, the philosophy is – do not keep anything for long. Since we are prodded to change, we want to cater to our fickle, entertaining mind the question come – how long can a person love the materialistic things around. Therefore separation beings at the family level. There is no religious cohesiveness – a family that prays together stays together. As long as materialistic purposes are kept in mind, the family will become unstable.
Hence religion is the primary purpose of Grihastha Āshrama. Grihasthaha is derived from Grihe Tishthati – hooked to the house. And once that attitude comes, the family bond is looked as a sacred bond caused by God himself. The bond is a sacred bond determined by God’s will and therefore God alone has the right to dismantle the bond. Only in such an attitude the family will be stable. And then only in a stable family, a person can develop important virtues like tolerance.
Therefore such forcible situations are required for transformation : Titikshā, tolerance, accommodation, forgiveness, trust etc are important virtues that can be developed only in a stable family. Finally, a stable family is required for raising emotionally healthy children. This has been found that when the family is unstable, there is a disharmony and the children sense the disharmony. Therefore Grihastha is extremely important for myself and the next generation.
4.3. Vānaprastha Vānaprastha and Sanyāsa Āshrama
Vānaprastha Āshrama is a training for gradual withdrawal. Because, if we study our physical body itself, it peaks into activity and as we grow older, the physical body cannot get involved in extroverted activities. The physical body withdraws and if there should be no strain, the mind should learn to gradually withdraw. Otherwise there will be a strain in the personality – the mind is highly active and the physical body is not able to implement. All the faculties are either slow or doubtful. Therefore the mind should also learn to withdraw, learn to enjoy seclusion – Antarmukhatvam learning introversion. This is a training period of self knowledge, turning towards the self where I should feel that I have learnt enough of the world and let me now cap the life with the knowledge of myself.
So Vānaprastha stage is a stage of withdrawal, introversion or seclusion. A retiring person has to prepare for the retirement, learning to accept the way of life and not developing any complex. Let the Vānaprastha be the preparation for the Sanyāsa Āshrama which is the next education. Sanyāsa Āshrama is again spiritual education. Brahmachārya Āshrama is value education – Dharma Jnānam. Sanyāsa Āshrama is with an introvert mind, living in seclusion.
Vānaprasthaha means the one who lives in seclusion even within the family.
Vananām Samūhaha Vānam Vāne Prakarshen Tishtathi Iti Vānaprasthaha.
Sanyāsaha literally means giving up everything, renunciation of everything, primarily renunciation of one’s ignorance and ego by which one is mentally prepared to lose anything in life. Yama Dharma Rāja is going to take everything including our body and before Yama Dharma Rāja comes, one should be prepared to hand over everything in a platter. So this is Sanyāsa Āshrama whether a person physically goes through all these stages or not one should mentally go through all these stages.
And Sanyāsa in a ritualistic form is called Āshrama Sanyāsa in which he physically renounces everything. But whether one physically renounces everything or not, one should surely mentally develop detachment from everything so that he is ready for self-knowledge.
These are the four Āshramas every human being following the religious scriptural tradition should go through.